How to Conduct a Heuristic Evaluation

Definition: Heuristic can be defined as an approach to problem solving or self-discovery that is sufficient for reaching an intermediate short term goal or approximation.  Essentially it’s a ‘rule of thumb’ that anyone can use to evaluate the user experience of a product.

A heuristic evaluation is commonly used at the start of a process when conducting a redesign, particularly when there is minimal data to work from and a good base to present issues to your client before more research has begun.

The heuristic evaluation principals were created by Jakob Nielsen – a renowned web usability consultant and partner in the Nielsen Norman Group.  They’re a set of principals that designers can adopt in order solve UX issues.

So what are the principals of a heuristic evaluation and how can we find them?

1. Visibility of system status
The design should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within a reasonable amount of time.  When users know the current system status, they learn the outcome of their prior interactions and determine next steps.Predictable interactions create trust in the products as well as the brand.

Example: Progress bars should give users an indication as to what is happening, and how long it’s going to take.

Progress bar UX.


2. Match between system and the real world
The design should speak users language.  Use common words or phrases rather than internal jargon and make information appear in natural or logical order. The same goes for icons and images.  What may be clear to you, can be unfamiliar to others.  When conducting user interviews, ensure you’re noting down the terms/phrases they use when speaking.  If you’re unsure what they mean – ask!

Example: When referring to the people your users service, do they call them customer, clients, contacts or something else?  If the industry commonly refers to them as ‘clients’ ensure that is used in the product where necessary.

Navigation items, Contacts vs Clients.


3. User control and freedom
Users often perform actions by mistake.  They need a clearly marked ’emergency exit’ to leave the unwanted action without having to go through an extended process.When it’s easy for people to back out of a process or undo an action, it fosters a sense of freedom and confidence.  Exits allow users to remain in control of the system and avoid getting stuck and feeling frustrated.

Example: Adding ‘Cancel’ or close buttons in modals, always.  Allow users to always go ‘home’.

user control and freedom heuristic evalution.

4. Consistency and standards
Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations or actions mean the same thing.  Follow platform industry conventions.  Jakob’s law states that people spend most of their time using digital products other than yours.  User’s experiences with those other products set their expectations.  Failing to maintain consistency may increase users’ cognitive load by forcing them to learn something new.

I get this for internal team members all the time.  “Oh can’t we do something ‘different’?!”  Different can be good, however as part of my own research, I’ll also ask in interviews – ‘What other digital tools do you use?’.  I do this because I need to understand the patterns they are already familiar with and enjoy.  Using consistent patterns reducing cognitive load and will only improve user experiences.

Example: Menu icons, delete patterns, log in and out screens.



5. Error prevention
Good error messages are important, but the best designs carefully prevent problems from occurring in the first place.  Either eliminate error-prone conditions, or check them and present users with a confirmation options before they commit to the action.

Example: Ask users to confirm when deleting data they may regret later, rather than instantly deleting it.  Furthermore, if this is a common issue – make it difficult by asking them to type something out rather than simply clicking a button.

confirmation modal.


6. Recognition rather than recall
Minimise the user’s memory load by making elements, actions and options visible.  The user should not have to remember information from one part of the interface to another.  Information required to use the design should be visible or easily retrievable when needed.

Example: Tooltips assist users in understanding an action before taking it.

Recognition rather than recall.


7. Flexibility and efficiency of use
Shortcuts – hidden from novice users may speed up the interaction for the expert user such as the design can cater for both inexperienced and experience users.  Allow users to tailor frequent actions.  Flexible processes can be carried out in different ways so that people can pick whichever method works for them.

Example: Tagging allows users to categorise items without having to sort them individually.

UX design tagging.


8. Aesthetic and minimalist design
Interfaces should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed.  Every extra unit of information in an interface competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.The heuristic doesn’t mean you have to use a flat design.  It’s all about making sure you’re keeping the content and visual design focused on the essentials.  Ensure that the visual elements of the interface support the user’s primary goals.

Example: Some products need a lot of assistance when outlining how to go about something.  This results in a lot of text on the screen.  Look at rewording the text to simplify the process OR see what you can do visually rather than via text.

Reduce Cognitive Load.


9. Help users recognise, diagnose and recover from errors
Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no error codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.  These error messages should also be presented with visual treatments that will help users notice and recognise them.

Example: Error messages should clearly outline the problem and assist you where possible.

UX heuristics - Recover from errors.

10. Help and documentation
It’s best if the system doesn’t need any additional explanation.  However, it may be necessary to provide documentation to help users understand how to complete their tasks. Help and documentation content should be easy to search and focused on the user’s task.  Keep it concise and list concrete steps that need to be carried out.

Example: Contextual help, tooltips and links to external documentation will all help users when needed.  Ensure you have a method for helping users in your product.


The usability heuristics / heuristic evaluation was written by Jakob Nielsen.

Running through user experience tasks can be daunting, which is why I’ve created a Google Doc Template for you to use.  Copy it and customise if for your own use.


Tania Richardson sign.




For those unsure about how it all works, I’ve attached Google template you can use to start conducting this experience on your own.

10+ years as a product designer. Helping start-ups and organisations combine user research and design principals to deliver the best in online experiences.

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